A short story is closer to the poem than to the novel (I’ve said that a million times) and when it’s very very short—1, 2, 2 1⁄2, pages—should be read like a poem. That is slowly. People who like to skip can’t skip in a 3-page story.
I trace my true introduction to the aesthetic of brevity to Ezra Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro,” which I first read as a college undergraduate. I didn’t know what flash fiction was at the time, and I’d just decided to become a writer, so I knew little of literary history, but after I read Pound’s two simple lines, I carried the idea of brevity with me.
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.
The title of the poem operates as an evocative line in the poem, anchoring us in a subway station. Then an entire world is evoked through simplicity. The poem offers just a moment of perception, yet that moment contains so much. The apparition of the faces gives a sense of liveliness, a world in motion, brightness in a dark subway station. The faces and the petals are conjoined, as if residing in the gauzy textures of an impressionist painting. There’s a delicacy to all, the images so mysterious and moody that they would risk being ruined by a single word more. Pound wrote, “The image itself is speech. The image is the word beyond formulated language.” This poem goes far beyond the words in it.
I think of Lu Chi’s advice on capturing detail in his classic The Art of Writing:
When the vein of jade
Is revealed in the rock
The whole mountain glistens
A single striking act of noticing acts as a “vein of jade” in Pound’s poem. Pound was influenced by the haiku, a form of poetry that in English is generally just seventeen syllables long. Often the poems are broken into three lines, with five syllables in the first line, seven syllables in the next, and five syllables in the last line.
Haikus work with empty space as if it’s an unresolved ellipsis, a breath forever held. It’s a form designed around ambiguity, so a writer has to accept the mindset of uncertainty. It’s also an expression of an awake experience, though, like a flash story in the sense that flash is often a burst of illumination. Haikus form themselves around their attentiveness to time and place; the short form invites concentrated observation and meditation on a single thing as a way to discover its true nature. “Haiku is an art that seems dedicated to making people pay attention to the preciousness and particularity of every moment of existence,” says Robert Hass.
In haiku, the weather and the seasons often play a significant role, bringing the writer into play with the mysterious sensations of life. The more piquant and original the images, the better. “The old verse can be about willows,” said the haiku master Matsuo Bashō. “Haikai requires crows picking snails in a rice paddy.” The purpose is to seize on a moment and to render it as purely and crisply as possible.
The form is designed to notice only what is in the moment, to experience and capture a purity of awareness. Pause and think about this. When have you achieved a purity of awareness? Does it last as long as an hour? A day? It’s usually a moment, isn’t it? You can’t take a photo of it, although it feels like a photo. I know of no better way to capture it than in the short form.
Consider the following:
Peeling a pear—
a trickle of sweet juice
along the blade
I like this haiku because it captures the moment when our purposeful drive, our pushing of the knife, yields to the juiciness of the world at hand. Haiku asks us to step out of our skin, to connect to the spirit of the world around us. There’s something about an aesthetic of brevity that touches upon the mystical, the ineffable, as a pathway to the truth.
Often haiku live in an enigma:
A flea-bite also;
when she is young,
Is the bite itself ironically beautiful, or is a flea bite beautiful only when young—a commentary on how such physical discomforts or blemishes hold different valences at different ages. Or is it a memory of a prick of youth, the prick appreciated now in a way it wasn’t then? It can be all of those things at once, can’t it? That’s what a powerful image is capable of.
There’s also Bashō’s famous haiku of the frog leaping into the pond:
The old pond
A frog leaps in.
Sound of the water.
This haiku, which nearly everyone in Japan knows, defines the form in that an action brings together the external and internal worlds. There’s a leap of being, an immersion, and the recognition of something observed in the sound of the frog plopping into the water. It’s a moment you share, but in its passing it is one you can’t possess. A haiku’s beauty resides in that pivot between external world and internal recognition. It’s a way of coming home to yourself. Brevity makes us realize how the complicated world is made of simple elements. You hold one thread of the skein of a messy life, which is what all lives so easily become or seem.
The haiku has evolved in many different ways over the years, showing how the techniques of brevity bridge sensibilities of the past and the present. The Beats, in particular, embraced the form and brought their rollicking sense of playfulness (and lawlessness) to it. Kerouac popularized the haiku in his 1958 novel, The Dharma Bums, when the character based on Kerouac and the character based on the poet Gary Snyder are climbing Matterhorn peak in California, and Snyder remarks that a “real” haiku should be “as simple as porridge and yet make you see the real thing,” and he proposes that probably “the greatest haiku of them all” is by Shiki: “The sparrow hops along the veranda, with wet feet.” You can see the wet footprints “like a vision in your mind,” says Snyder, “and yet in those few words you also see all the rain that’s been falling that day and almost smell the wet pine needles.”
Other Beat poets such as Allen Ginsberg and Philip Whalen helped to establish the haiku zeitgeist of the 1960s, and Kerouac Americanized the haiku form, calling them “pops” to match the playful spirit he approached them with.
Two Japanese boys
Inky Dinky Parly Voo
Bird suddenly quiet
on his branch—his
Wife glancing at him
Kerouac was also known to fuse haiku and jazz and give jazzy improvisational readings of his haiku, which can be heard on Kerouac’s 1958 album, Blues and Haiku, on which his haiku readings are accompanied by the jazz saxophonists Zoot Sims and Al Cohn.
In my medicine cabinet
The winter fly
Has died of old age
A bird on
the branch out there
Kerouac said that haiku must be “very simple and free of all poetic trickery and make a little picture and yet be as airy and graceful as a Vivaldi Pastorella.” Although Kerouac is famous for his “spontaneous prose” approach to novel writing, he said in a 1968 Paris Review interview that haiku are “best reworked and revised” in order to achieve simplicity: “It has to be completely economical, no foliage and flowers and language rhythm, it has to be a simple little picture in three little lines.”
A simple little picture:
The summer chair
rocking by itself
In the blizzard
In many ways, short-shorts, especially the smallest stories categorized as microfiction, are the prose version of haiku. Like a haiku, a flash story is an imagist’s medium. A striking image connects us with the unconscious, offers a path to the dreamworld. Shapes shift, and otherworldly possibilities arise. In such displacement, there is a peculiar kind of placement. The image is carrying us. Sometimes, we can literally feel lifted by it.
“Within a good image, outer and subjective worlds illumine one another, break bread together, converse. In this way, image increases both vision and what is seen,” wrote Jane Hirshfield.
The word metaphor originally meant “to carry” or “to transfer” in Latin and Greek. It carries meaning, but it also carries a story itself, which is why Hirshfield says images, metaphors, and similes are “sliding doors, places of opening through which subjective and objective may penetrate and become each other.” A metaphor helps the mind play with its well-trod patterns of thought, and in the way it introduces strangeness and makes the familiar unfamiliar, it can even help reroute those patterns.
Images take on a more prominent place in short-shorts than they do in longer works because they serve to resonate and enlarge a work, to carry the work and let it speak beyond the page. Sometimes the image becomes almost like a main character itself, as in a poem. An image that carries a work with its symbolic weight is a fusion of inner and outer environments, a marriage of reality and fantasy. Sharp, arresting, and sensual images deepen our experience of a story, invoke memories, and invite us to take part on a physical and sensory level. One image connects to another, adding nuance and flavor to an idea. Images move us, and in moving us, they move stories and poems forward in mysterious ways, almost as if the image is a verb itself.
At the same time, a metaphor requires us to pause, to slow down, to take in a story as if reading a poem. “The surprise and density of metaphor require unpacking, and in the process of unpacking, the reader experiences the effects of a longer story. That’s why, to me, the best flash fiction invites readers to slow down rather than speed up,” said Pedro Ponce.
Ezra Pound, in his essay, “A Few Don’ts by an Imagiste” says, “An ‘Image’ is that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instance in time…It is the presentation of such a ‘complex’ instantaneously which gives that sense of sudden liberation, that sense of freedom from time limits and space limits; that sense of sudden growth, which we experience in the presence of the greatest work of art.”
To gain that sense of freedom, Pound emphasized finding the “luminous details” that animate an image, the revelatory details that make us feel as if we have participated in an experience. An image is not good because it is scientifically precise in the accuracy of its details but because of its illuminating qualities—the way it awakens a mood, a feeling, or an idea while it draws us a picture. Description and evocation are two very different things. “No ideas but in things,” as William Carlos Williams famously proclaimed.
An image requires study, probing, excavation, and precision. You must become, as the novelist Wallace Stegner once put it, “an incorrigible lover of concrete things.” You have to devote yourself to attention. Although in our highly visual culture we tend to think of the visual by default, some of the most evocative imagery engages the nose, the ears, the sense of touch, or taste. And beyond. Although we’re taught that humans have five senses, some posit that we have as many as thirty. Consider the sense of balance, the sense of movement, the sense of time passing. Or there are senses that only other animals have, such as the ability to feel electrical fields, or, like bats, to feel the earth’s magnetic field.
Like a poet, the flash writer searches for the singularity of a moment—the lyric moment. It is the pure experience of an object, an intense concentration that supersedes self. The lyric provokes a connection of states between the writer and reader. A description is born in consciousness attuned to the pulse of life. Behind all good description is a hunger to know the world more, to truly taste it. It’s not decorative. It’s not just looking at things closely, but the practice of careful looking. Description is a type of assertion of a world view. It holds its own metaphysics, its own position on what things are and what things can be.
Language becomes its own “sixth sense,” in fact, providing a different way to access experience, defamiliarizing at the same time it familiarizes. Ask yourself how your choices of language encourage a reader to make associations. Consider Pound’s dictum: “Use no superfluous word, no adjective, which does not reveal something.” To find the language of revelation, you have to inhabit an image, connect it with other images, and reimagine it.
Brevity asks us to look at things anew—to re-see the world, to re-see the language we use for describing the world, to cease taking these things for granted. It’s like looking in the mirror and not quite recognizing yourself—you feel a little estranged, you pause in wonder to look closer, and then you see yourself with seemingly different eyes, at a different angle. You’re awake to new details, a different experience of self.
A metaphor isn’t ornamental. It should serve to transform, to take us to a new place, to disrupt and renew. It’s such a difficult task to be able to capture the essential exquisiteness of an image, to find a way for its details to illuminate, that Ezra Pound said, “It is better to present one Image in a lifetime than to produce voluminous works.”
Ponder these evocative images and consider how they evoke a moment more powerfully by decentering language as a way to recenter it:
The sun had become a light yellow yolk and was walking with red legs across the sky.
—Zora Neale Hurston, Seraph on the Suwanee
The heavy smell of flower petals stroked the walls of my lungs.
—Haruki Murakami, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle
Every word, every detail matters. A piercing precision is key. Flaubert’s idea of the mot juste becomes a guiding aesthetic principle. It’s a style of recontextualization, dislocating conventional perceptions and recasting them into something new and more dramatic. A metaphor might often be made, but they’re just as likely to be discovered. Here is why the freedom to play is sacred. Connect words that don’t usually go together. Search for latent connections and meanings. Feel the materiality of language. Let language use you.
Flash also uses emptiness to enhance its imagery, a characteristic common to the Zen-influenced arts. For example, in ikebana, Japanese flower arranging, sumptuousness is paired with austerity. The unfilled space is part of the composition, just as silence is part of John Cage’s compositions. Barthes wrote that the haiku’s “absence” created an “echo-less breach of meaning.” One reads haiku, Barthes said, to “suspend language, not to provoke it.” As Bashō said, “The secret of poetry lies in treading the middle path between the reality and the vacuity of the world.”
Simplicity too often goes underappreciated because it is so simple. Spare detail and casualness of tone can make a story or poem seem deceptively easy when the opposite is the case. “It takes such perfect intuition to know to shut up like this, to know that all you have to do is get the crack started and let the crack continue in the reader,” writes Kay Ryan, who is known for spare and simple poems that are inimitable in my mind (I say as one who has tried). Such intuition comes from years of practice, from experiencing many moments of not trusting how a hint must remain a hint to “let the crack continue in the reader.”
I think of Lao Tzu, who espoused the principles of absence, noticing how spokes that gather at the hub of a wheel work because of the space between them, or how a jar made with clay works because of the space that it holds. “Presence gives things their value,” he wrote, “but absence makes them work.”
Small openings lead to big openings. Nothing can be fully described, but even the tiniest poem or story can speak to the largest of cosmos. “A poem can know more than we can know,” Ryan says. “It must.” And perhaps that’s Ryan’s guiding principle, how she knows not to try to add more, why trusting in lightness works better than trusting in weight: the poem has to know more than we do.
One of the most oft-repeated mantras of writing workshops is: “Show, don’t tell.” But in many poems and in flash fiction, showing and telling take a different form. You gesture, you suggest. Absence—not showing—is as powerful as showing. Absence is a key part of the flower arrangement.
Flashpoint: Image Exercise
The crucial narrative technique of a horror movie is not to show the monster but to make the monster live in the imagination as a threat, lurking in a forest or an attic. Horror stories work because of anticipation, because of slowly accumulating fear, not because of blood-spattered gore (an overused and ineffective technique). The key in building anticipation is to focus on the small things. A single strand of hair on a vanilla cupcake will do as much to repel people as any blood-and-guts killing.
Think about the moods a story can embody. Do you want the story to be lush and sensuous? Crowded? Fevered? Dark? Now write a series of images that speak to each of these moods. Think of the way each image can tie together external and internal worlds. See if the images can grow into other motifs that might weave their way into a story.
Excerpted from The Art of Brevity, published by the University of New Mexico Press.